A New Proposal Envisions Federal Help for States and Localities to Reduce Prison Populations

Rep. Ayanna Pressley speaks at a press conference with the other members of "The Squad," Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley speaks at a press conference with the other members of "The Squad," Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

The “People’s Justice Guarantee” suggests states repeal tough sentencing laws, while local governments eliminate cash bail for people awaiting trials.

State and local governments would receive financial incentives to take on some of the most challenging aspects of reworking their criminal justice systems, from eliminating cash bail to cutting mandatory prison sentences, in a proposal unveiled by Rep. Ayanna Pressley this week. 

The resolution, a sweeping proposal that imagines changes to  criminal justice at the local, state and federal levels, calls for ending the death penalty, banning assault weapons, legalizing marijuana, and decriminalizing sex work. But much of the proposal by Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat who is a member of the “Squad,” a group of influential congresswomen in their first terms, sets the goals of “dramatically” reducing the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, as well as local jails. 

“The federal government has a tremendous impact on the operation of the American legal system at the federal, state, and local levels and can push for a more humane, dignified, and just society for all,” reads the resolution, called the People’s Justice Guarantee.

Of the 2.2 million people currently locked up in this country, the vast majority—over 1.9 million—are in state prisons and local jails. The resolution calls on state and local governments to take steps to significantly reduce their prison and jail populations, saying they would receive “tax incentives” in exchange. 

Pressley’s office said that the financial incentives for state and local governments would be disbursed through grants.

Two possible policy options the resolution suggests for local jurisdictions are repealing so-called truth-in-sentencing laws and three-strike laws. 

Truth-in-sentencing laws, which were first enacted in states in 1984, require those convicted to serve all, or nearly all of their sentences in prison, instead of on parole or in transitional housing. By the mid-1990s, 27 states had passed such laws in order to be eligible for federal correctional grants to build and expand prisons. By 2001, when the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing grant program expired, all 50 states had received this grant money. 

Many states, including those led by both Democrats and Republicans, have taken on trying to shrink their prison populations, including repealing or enacting retroactive reversals of their truth-in-sentencing laws. In 2008, Mississippi became one of the first states to change its truth-in-sentencing policy for nonviolent convictions from a prisoner having to serve 85% of the sentence to 25% or one year, whichever was longer, and applied the changes retroactively. Parole approvals increased by 17%, and accounted for two-thirds of the state’s 20% drop in prison population over ten years.

Three-strike laws have also come under the chopping block in recent years. In California, state law required a life sentence for any conviction if a person had at least two prior serious or violent convictions. California voters passed Proposition 36 in 2000, which eliminated life sentences for non-violent crimes, and this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure that would further reduce sentences for repeat convictions. 

At the local level, the resolution calls for the end of cash bail and suggests providing grants to localities to establish alternate pretrial systems. In recent years, cash bail elimination has received bipartisan support across the country. New York City and California have both eliminated cash bail, and efforts are being debated in states as diverse as Nevada, Alabama, and Vermont.

The resolution would impose a number of constraints on local law enforcement, such as  calling for the end of military equipment transfer to local police departments, the elimination of policing for criminal penalties associated with public transit, a ban on law enforcement use of facial recognition and risk assessment software, the creation of reporting requirements of police-involved civilian deaths to the Department of Justice, and the waiving of qualified immunity for police and correctional officers when they are involved in civilian deaths.

While many elements of the measure are sure to spur debate, some of the ideas about reducing the prison population could gain broader support. Criminal justice reform has been gaining bipartisan approval in state legislatures on issues ranging from record expungement to probation and parole term revisions. Such initiatives have brought together unlikely allies like Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, and left-leaning organizations like the ACLU. The potential of that alliance was recently seen at the federal level, where the coalition pushed through the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform law aimed at reducing federal prison sentences.

In a call with reporters, Pressley said that her office consulted with more than 20 organizations to craft the proposal and said she plans to center the voices of those directly impacted by the criminal justice system in the reform debate. “I’ve seen firsthand the effects of criminal and racial injustice and the trauma it causes for families and entire communities,” Pressley said. “If one of us is suffocated by systemic oppression, racism, and intergenerational trauma, we all lose.”

This story has been updated to reflect a response from Pressley's office about the structure of financial incentives for states and localities.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route FIfty.

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